Disturbing Madonna shocks
us out of our complacency

By Michael E. Abrams
copyright 2010

     Our madonna looks out over a still-suffering world, one in which in the past century an estimated 160 million persons have died in wars, many of them because they were of the wrong religion. The terror continues today, and much of it in the name of religion.

      This message in the famous painting in Cincinnati, Ohio, has now been pried out of its dusty camouflage.  If what Rabbi Oirechman tells us is true, it is a disturbing message.  But even if the letters are merely random,  we can learn from them.

       The message, as our holiday season comes around, resounds for us with the imperative of brotherhood and of religious tolerance, and carries a ringing call for the need for understanding.  It is indeed a call to action. The Hebrew inscription tells us that the sources of western religion are dependent mutual understanding - and that we should recognize this.

   This Hebrew letters, in fact, comes to us in a time of great need. The hunger for spirituality in the world exists alongside all the innovations of science.
    Escaping the eye of onlookers and even the expert eye of the art historian, the Hebrew words on the van Cleve painting are seen by the rabbi as "I am the Lord your God"  and have a provenance as old as civilization, when man first put his hand to the axe, when powers and principalities ruled the day and the night.  Hidden in the folds of the royal blue bodice of the Madonna, he sees words of a revolution of faith.

   "I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, our of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me." 

    Monotheism, the belief in one God, became the basis for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
It is a message that has the power to release mankind both from the despotism of tyrants and the despotism of rampant self aggrandizement.

Photo Courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum
      The Hebrew letters, even if they are random letters as one art historian believes,  bring with them, in our estimation. the imperative of religious understanding. The cherries, grasped in the hand of the child, originally known in lands to the east,  add the aspect of Islamic culture.

      The Hebrew Bible states in Leviticus - "Love your neighbor as yourself - I am the Lord." 

      Jesus  is quoted in Matthew 7: 12  "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."

       Muhammad (the Farewell Sermon) asked believers to treat others as they, themselves, wish to be treated.
"Hurt no one," said Muhammad, "that no one may hurt you."

     Today we cannot afford a message of divisiveness, the goal of which would be to compel  people to convert to some preferred religion.  That was the path of the old history.

     A new history must be written in brotherhood and understanding because too much is now at stake in our nuclear age. 

     When the 33 Chilean miners were trapped half a mile from beneath the earth's surface, the prayers of the world were heard. The father of one of the trapped miners said the nights were getting cold as families waited to hear the news. "But we just kept going, trusting in God that this would all work out." A miracle is actually mankind in partnership with God, it is not necessarily a God from a machine in the heavens, reaching down to interfere in the lives of believers.

  There are those whose beliefs are naturally tempered by the science of the times. We live in an age of cynicism and skepticism, where we demand proof.  Many of these proofs do not stand the test of time.  The rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said the real question was not whether we believed in God, but whether we gave God reason to believe in us.

Even Einstein, who did not believe in a personal God, found the time to reflect on the meaning of existence. 

 "A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man."

   One sees within the face of this bashful madonna and her child the kind of palpable radiant beauty that reflect faith.  It is not the product of the profound reasoning that Einstein might prefer.  But, after science departs and we are left with the sparse usufructs of our own existence, challenged on every side by the byproducts of our nuclear and chemical present, facing the few years of individual human existence, we can still look to age-old truths conveyed to us in this Madonna.

     Miracles exist today, and she has given us one.